We’ve found a way into the forbidden stream. It ghosts through unknown lands beyond back garden fences, hidden beneath willows so tall they darken the sky. It’s the 1960s, and we children – me, my sister and various friends – are free to roam, but not, our mother insists, in the ‘dangerous’ River Quaggy. We creep along where it runs behind our house, so she doesn’t hear us. She may have a point: the banks are steep and slippy with leaf litter. She’d probably read reports of a gelignite stash found in the Quaggy in 1960.
The Quaggy’s name derives from the same root as quagmire, but this is south-east London, and the Quaggy is an urban stream. It flows from Sundridge in Bromley, joining the Ravensbourne at Lewisham on its way to the Thames. It was open and tree-lined by our house but, through our childhood, concrete culverts imprisoned much of the rest, victim to post-war urbanisation. There was a downside: flooding. Water fed through narrow channels speeds up dramatically after heavy rainfall and, with no flood plains to capture water, the result is inevitable.
I remember the most infamous flood. After overnight storms across the south-east, residents of Lewisham and Lee woke on 15th September 1968 to severe floods as the Quaggy and Ravensbourne burst their banks. We dashed to save our beloved pet rabbits from drowning in their hutch; people travelled to work in wellies; Lewisham’s Mayor boated around in his dinghy giving help. Everyone pulled together, but the damage to property was immense.
This and later flooding resulted in further channelisation proposals. These were never implemented, due to the efforts of the Quaggy Waterways Action Group (QWAG), formed by local residents in 1990 in response to the proposed flood alleviation scheme. Paul de Zylva, QWAG’s Chair, told me:
“For too long urban rivers have been put underground or in deep concrete channels, which means they become little more than sewers and dumping grounds for litter and rubbish.”
QWAG members love the Quaggy. They are also committed, knowledgeable, pioneering and persuasive. They argued for creating flood plains, to soak up excess water, and restoring the Quaggy to its natural condition as far more effective in flood prevention. The powers-that-be took notice. In partnership with QWAG, the Environment Agency tried an approach combining river restoration and flood management. It worked. Two flood plains (also called water storage areas) were created along the stretch between Greenwich and Lewisham. The closest of these to my childhood home, five minutes’ walk away, is at Sutcliffe Park, completed in 2004. There, the Quaggy was below-ground in an underground culvert. Now,
Sutcliffe’s Quaggy is released, a place of marshes, a large lake, boardwalks, reeds, dragonflies, fish and waterbirds, and somewhere that people can relax, exercise and enjoy nature. It’s a success story: nature has returned to what was once a grass monoculture, while potential floodwaters are stored and then released slowly, minimising flood risk.
My sister and brother-in-law still live by the Quaggy, under the tall willows. A kingfisher has been nesting nearby. Foxes raise families on the riverbank; moorhens go curruk; holly blue butterflies and damselflies feed among the ivy; and magpies survey from high in the willows, acting sentinel and alarm-calling at any security breach – mainly prowling cats. Sometimes a heron sails by and lands in the sports field opposite, and a sparrowhawk has been hunting, often the only evidence a pile of downy feathers. Bats live in Sutcliffe Park, using the river as a flightpath, feasting on insects attracted to the wet woodland. There are interlopers, too: those noisy but delightful parakeets (squawking in a ‘Sarf London’ accent), and even once a male pheasant.
There’s more to be done, with recent flooding of other parts upstream. QWAG’s work with its partners continues, aiming for a full restoration of the entire river (it would be the first fully restored urban river in the world), and I’m confident they’ll succeed. The Quaggy is already coming to life – and there’s been no more flooding of properties in the stretch of the river I knew as a child. As Paul de Zylva says:
“When residents from across Bromley, Greenwich and Lewisham formed QWAG in the late 1980s and started pushing for the restoration of local rivers, the huge societal demand for action to curb dangerous climate change and to restore the UK’s depleted nature and wildlife were regarded by most people and politicians as peripheral and perhaps even ridiculous ideas. Now they are mainstream.”
For me, the ongoing restoration of the Quaggy is a testament to the power of local people acting together – members of QWAG; folk taking part in all the educational, recreational and clean-up events it organises; and the many visitors to Sutcliffe Park and other restored stretches of the Quaggy.
With World Rivers Day celebrated on 25 September 2022, the Quaggy is also a reminder that a river’s place in an urban world need not be, indeed should not be, one of culverts and concrete if we are to welcome wildlife and avoid dangerous consequences like flooding. Allowing nature to take its own wise direction matters not only in the fields and rivers of the countryside, but also in the back gardens and urban streams of our towns and cities.
Title image: The Quaggy as it passes beneath a road in Lee, south-east London by Amanda Scott
With thanks to Paul de Zylva, Chair of the Quaggy Waterways Action Group, and its amazing members and volunteers.
If you remember Lewisham’s ‘Great Flood’ of 1968, you can contribute your memories to Lewisham’s In Living Memory programme.
A big thank you to Amanda Tuke for commissioning this post, and leading the wonderful workshops out of which it evolved.